The Orlando Sentinel has commissioned a public opinion poll about the public’s attitudes toward NASA. At first reading, it’s not good news for the agency, or for those who want NASA to send people to Mars. However, I think that it’s potentially great news for our nation’s future in space–I’ll explain why in a minute.
There are some nice graphics with the piece as well.
In the first one, people expressed their view of what NASA’s purpose should be. Research and development was by far the most popular (though it’s hard to know if people really understand what this means). The bad news for Marsaholics is that only 9% support a mission to the Red Planet. There’s more support (at 11%) for a total disbanding of the agency.
The second one shows that of all federal programs that might need cutting for war or budget purposes, more people (37%) think that NASA should be on the chopping block than any other federal area. Tax cuts come in number two, at 26%.
And just to put things in budgetary perspective, there’s a graph of spending on NASA as percentage of the federal budget for the past four decades. There was a big spike during the Apollo program of about 4% of the budget (also, recall that the budget was much smaller then, relative to the economy), after which it’s settled down to a steady one percent or so, year after year.
This last is significant because, among the many other things that most people don’t understand about NASA, they’re unaware of how little of the federal budget it actually is. You could completely zero it, and it would only provide enough funds to provide Health and Human Services with funding for a few days. This showed up in similar polls that we used to do when I worked at Rockwell International, in which large numbers of people would guess that NASA took up to half of the federal budget.
However, as little as it is, it is not to say that the money is well spent. And the real problem with this poll (like most polls) is the “false-choice” aspect of it. For instance, they didn’t ask about the Moon. They didn’t ask about public space travel. But one might infer from the overwhelming support for “research and development” that the public might hope that the program would provide something useful, and that they recognize that pure science and exploration cannot justify the budget.
If NASA can present a compelling vision as to how the space program will actually impact individual lives, I see a potential opening here for a renaissance of space. What these polls need to do is to stop asking, vicariously, what NASA should do, and instead ask the people themselves, “What do you want to do in space?”
When they have the answer to that question, they may have the basis for some kind of policy direction.
Oh, and as a side note, well…two side notes:
John Pike, space-policy expert and director of the defense think tank Globalsecurity.org, was more blunt.
“Rich white men like the space program; other people don’t,” he said. “Rich people are prepared to spend money on luxuries that poorer people aren’t.”
Well, at least he didn’t say “stupid white men…”
Side note number one–labeling (or in this case, lack of labeling) press bias. One would have no idea from this neutral description that John comes from the left end of the political spectrum, and that his “defense think tank” is actually devoted to ensuring that we never develop significant weapons capability in space, either for space control, or even to defend ourselves against ballistic missiles.
Side note number two–John is a “space-policy expert” only in his own mind, and in the minds of the journalists (particularly liberal journalists—NPR just loves him, or at least they used to) who always reflexively go to him, mainly because he’s good at sound bites.
Unfortunately, the press is lazy and unwilling to cultivate a broader stable of experts–once they find someone who both gives good soundbites and tells them what they want/expect to hear, they tend to return to the same (sometimes foul) well, instead of getting some fresh viewpoints. If that sounds like a rant about how come they never ask me…it probably is.